INTO AFRICA: Beaded Baskets and a Warthog

(This is the first in a series of essays on a recent trip to Africa with the Indiana Chapter of Volunteer Optometrists in Service to Humanity (VOSH).  Jack and I were two of twenty volunteers and ten optometrists who conducted a free eye-clinic for four days to dispense used eye-glasses to poor residents of Nairobi, after which the team went on a safari into the Rift Valley where humans first emerged many million years ago.  It was a journey of stark contrasts, strange time warps, and unbelievably tender moments of human contact and of animal contact.)

One afternoon we visited a Maasai village where people still live much as their ancestors did, with the minor changes you might expect given modern developments in government, politics, and technology.  They are still a tribe whose primary activities are raising children and cattle, and they live off the grid.  A common greeting is “How are the children? How are the cattle?”  They welcomed us with dance and song, and invited us inside their village bounded by braided twigs and branches to keep wild animals out and the cattle inside during the night. Their compound was totally devoid of color: gray mud walls, dirt and manure ground cover, and no visible decorations.  The day was also gray and cloudy. Storm clouds were massing over the savanna. The only color inside their village compound was the bright red cloth they use for their clothing, often plaid like Scottish highlanders, and worn like tartans along with brightly spangled jewelry and head gear.  (Later we thought: How strange! They live in an environment with no color except themselves.  We live in fancy houses with colorful, pricey décor and wear faded jeans and t-shirts.)

They invited us into their thatched mud huts where they were proud to let us observe how they live simple lives without electricity and most of the modern conveniences we take for granted.  We split into groups of five and entered their low, dark homes.  It began to rain while we were visiting, and so they invited us to stay inside longer and chat with them. They were very gracious even though they probably do this several times a week or maybe almost every day with groups of loud, boisterous tourists like us.

Afterwards we were taken into a round, thatched building just outside the compound where they display art objects and craft items which they make and offer for sale.  The building was constructed like the others, but the mud walls went only half way up, and then an open space beneath the thatched roofing.  Women and children stood outside and looked over the walls to the tables inside loaded with craft objects for sale. Many of the women were the makers of the craftwork and were positioned to observe the sales activities.  Inside the “salesmen” were young Maasai warriors.

We were told before we went to the village that nothing would have a price tag on it and that all prices were “negotiable.”  We were expected to bargain.   This is not something I’m good at or feel comfortable doing. I was prepared to buy nothing rather than fumble around over Kenyan shillings and make a fool of myself.

Well, I was on the look-out for simple items to bring back as gifts for family and friends, and I found a table with small beaded baskets.  They looked perfect:  well-crafted, beautiful, and small enough to bring back on a plane.  I wondered how much they were.  I took one over to one of the Maasai warriors who were doing the negotiating.  He called through the open wall to a woman standing outside who exchanged several comments with him in Maa, their ancient language.  He told me the price for one basket would be 2800 shillings.  When he saw the bewildered look on my face, he said quickly, “I can do dollars,” and converted with the appropriate exchange rate.  “35 U.S dollars,” he said.

So knowing this was the price I was supposed to bargain from, I suggested $12.  He said $20.  Then I thought maybe if I said I wanted six of them he would give me a deal.  “What if I buy six of them?” I asked. He pulled out pencil and paper and began his figuring.  I guess he wasn’t good at multiplying because he listed $20 six times and added it up.  “$120,” he said.  I was getting no cut rate for buying six.

But then Jack came over with a carving of a warthog that he had been looking for.  (We felt sorry for warthogs because they are the ugliest animals on the savanna.  It seems everyone despises them.  And there are lots of warthogs on the savanna.  There are also a lot of baby warthogs who look rather cute if you don’t see them too up-close.)  We told the young warrior we were together and maybe he could give us a special deal for six baskets and one warthog.  He didn’t come up with a very good offer, so I suggested five baskets instead of six to see if he’d come down a bit.  He didn’t like that idea. The price stayed where it was, because it was an “expensive warthog,” so we haggled some more and put the deal back up to six baskets and the warthog.  Finally we agreed—or so I thought.  I paid the price in US dollars and took my six baskets and Jack’s warthog, and continued to mingle around the market.

A few minutes later an old Maasai woman came up and asked suspiciously how many baskets I had. I said, “Six.”  She shouted something to the guy I had been negotiating with who came over and told me that I had bought five, not six, beaded baskets.  We argued a bit over what we had agreed on, but we were going nowhere.  I was beginning to feel like a shop-lifter.  And all the clerks were Maasai warriors.

Then, wonderfully, that part of you that can step back and watch what you’re doing stepped back and watched what I was doing.  And said to me, “Hey, you’re a rich old American bickering with a poor young Maasai over $20.  You have money.  He needs money.  This is how he makes money.”

So I said, “Okay, it’s fine,” and put one basket back on the table.  Suddenly I was feeling claustrophobic in the hot, crowded trading hut and took my five baskets and one warthog and stepped out into the soft, cooling rain that had started up again.   I hate negotiating prices.  I’m not good at it, like I’m not good at poker either.

Later back in the jeep as we headed across the plains to the safari camp, the conversation buzzed about that constant American obsession: bargains.  There was talk about “good deals,” “great deals,” “best deal,” and so on, and talk about “chewing them down to reasonable prices.” I didn’t feel like I could get into this conversation.  Partly because I didn’t know if I had gotten a good deal or not.  Partly because something else seemed more important.

I was thinking: It’s not about bargaining for the “best deal” or even a “good deal.“  It’s not about buying some object.  It’s about a fair deal between peoples.

I have money. They need money.  This is how they make money.